What’s behind the early Red Wave military exercises?

The joint naval exercises may be a response to recent threats to Gulf navigational security.
Friday 27/09/2019
An Iranian Navy warship takes part in the "National Persian Gulf day" in the Strait of Hormuz, on April 30. (AFP)
An Iranian Navy warship takes part in the "National Persian Gulf day" in the Strait of Hormuz, on April 30. (AFP)

CAIRO - Naval forces from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and Djibouti have begun the second phase of Red Wave joint military exercises as regional waterways grow increasingly contentious.

The annual exercises appeared to go ahead earlier than usually scheduled, leading to suggestions they might have been moved up as a response to terror attacks on Saudi oil firm Saudi Aramco.

The September 14 attack was claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels but Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Iran of being behind it.

The joint naval exercises, which take months to organise and would not help countries prepare for land or aerial attacks, however, are unlikely to have gone ahead due to the Aramco attack but they may be a response to other threats to Gulf navigational security.

In May and June, Saudi, Emirati, Japanese and Singaporean tankers were targeted while transporting oil from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates via the Arab Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz.

No country or party claimed responsibility for the attacks but many governments and intelligence agencies blamed Iran and its Houthi allies.

Mohamed Bahaa Eldin, a professor of political science at Suez University, said the military exercises, which began September 23, are meant to send messages to Iran and the Houthis.

The first message, he said, is that Egypt’s “armed forces, the strongest in the Arab world and one of the strongest in the Middle East, are supporting Saudi Arabia and consider any threat to its security a threat to Egypt accordingly.” Second, he said: “Arab governments stand united to protect maritime security, whose instability may also directly affect Egypt.”

The Arabian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and Egypt’s Suez Canal are main choke points for regional economic powers, including Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, seeking to do business with the West. Tens of billions of dollars in shipments pass through the waterways yearly and any disruption could seriously harm many countries’ revenues.

While threats to the Gulf would have a limited effect on the Suez Canal, which is especially critical for global trade, Cairo’s economy could be hit if the price of oil jumps because of a closure of the Strait of Hormuz.

Egypt imports $4.4 billion of oil per year, which accounts for 3.6% of its public budget resources. Any large increase in the price of oil would prove devastating for Egypt, which faces a budget deficit and is being pressured by lenders to cut subsidies.

The Red Wave exercises could also affect ties between countries such as Turkey, Sudan and Djibouti.

In 2017, the Turkish military began talks with the now-ousted regime of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to establish bases on Suakin Island in the Red Sea. It also initiated talks with Djibouti about opening a military base on its coast near the Bab el Mandeb Strait.

The exercises, analysts said, send Turkey a message that Sudan and Djibouti are firmly in the Arab fold and are receiving support from Arab militaries, notably Egypt’s.

"This reflects the fact that the Egyptian and Arab regimes are far-sighted at the risk of the Turkish military presence in the Red Sea close to Bab el Mandeb Strait which is the main path to the Suez Canal, as Turkey is in great tensions with Egypt and many other Arab countries," said Mahmoud Zahran, a journalist who specialises on Turkey.